That year, 1978, my 8-man infantry section entered a ‘march and shoot’ competition against full-time regular army units, including the Royal Marines and Paratroop Regiment. We marched 13 miles in under 3 hours, tackled 3 challenging obstacles en route, whilst each carrying a 60lb pack, a rifle with 20 rounds of live ammunition. On top of that we carried a radio and machine gun. Terry, one of our lads, was a painter and decorator who worked at weekends so couldn’t train. The day of the competition was baking hot and within a few miles Terry was flagging. Everyone in the team took turns to carry his pack and rifle – even his jacket – and we literally dragged him to the end of the course.
By this time Terry was hobbling in agony but he struggled through to the final challenge. This was the vital, scoring part of the competition; a 600 yards sprint across open ground firing at pop-up targets. As soon as we finished, Terry sank to the ground and we watched in horror as he pulled off his boots, revealing his raw, bloodied feet.
At least we had finished. Our happiness was short-lived however. Soon came the announcement that, after all our effort, we had come last; we’d scored the least hits. Bewildered, I did a quick calculation and realised our score was impossibly low – two of us alone had scored the 15 they claimed was our total team score. I challenged the scoring. Result? The invigilators, assuming a rag-tag team of civilians couldn’t possibly have beaten elite servicemen, had automatically allocated us the lowest score. In fact we had won the competition! I still have the medal. The sense of triumph it gives me has little to do with being a good shot myself but rather the exhilaration of being with a group of men whose dogged teamwork, individual tenacity, and refusal to be cowed by ‘the system’ had pulled off a remarkable win against incredible odds.
All of my work as a social entrepreneur has been informed by a passion to overcome what I call institutional discrimination: To create opportunities for and give a voice to people who are left behind or underestimated by society.
But having a lonely passion is not enough – to do anything at scale you need allies. In May 2002, I met a remarkable man called Peter Watherston who was heading up a homelessness charity, First Fruit. At that very first meeting we agreed to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity. Together we would take on a contract with HSBC to remove and recycle ALL 59,000 items of furniture being discarded by HSBC in their enormous move to Canary Wharf (the largest office relocation in European history).
My very young social enterprise, Green-Works, had an annual turnover at the time of £23,000, and I had enough cash to employ a young man, Chris Triggs, for 3 months. Peter, a trained accountant and CoE vicar was employing a small number of homeless people doing deliveries. Neither of us had any experience in running a warehouse or managing a project on this scale. Nevertheless, we shook hands there and then and committed to work with each other. On the strength of that hand shake he took on a huge warehouse in the East End of London, and I negotiated a comprehensive contract with HSBC. Over the next 12 years we worked together creating literally hundreds of jobs and recycling 47,000 tonnes of furniture.
A shared vision centred on a genuine desire to support others is such a solid foundation for partnership. The world of social enterprise brings together extraordinarily committed people who think creatively to work through whatever obstacles are thrown in the way.
Based on my experience of running Green-Works for 12 years, I wrote a book called ‘How to make a million jobs.’ During my research I confirmed the worst fears about our society that my experience had shown me. I revealed some frightening statistics about how many people in the UK are functionally illiterate, how many communities are left behind, and how the headline unemployment numbers mask the real, underlying enormity of structural worklessness.
I set up Tree Shepherd to prove my theory. Even the most statistically deprived community is bristling with untapped talent. With the right blend of business guidance and a supportive network many people can generate income for themselves and create employment for others. More than 75% of the start-ups we have supported are run by women or people from ethnic minorities – people who are too often patronised or discriminated against by landlords, banks and local authorities.
Tree Shepherd combines my belief in people and my passion for creating partnerships to tackle discrimination and adds a dose of advocacy. This has proved to be a potent recipe for developing communities of businesses who individually and together play to their strengths, speak up, and take their place as meaningful contributors to their local economy.
This MBE is testament to everyone I’ve worked with who share this vision for a fairer society